​how tragedy turned david hockney back onto portraiture

The artist’s show at the Royal Academy, a series of new portraits, was inspired by the memory of his dead assistant.

by Felix Petty
30 June 2016, 11:31pm

David Hockney, Rufus Hale, 23rd, 24th, 25th November, 2015

After his 23-year-old assistant died, Dominic Elliott, in May 2013 by drinking drain cleaner, David Hockney retreated his Los Angeles studio, he was unable to work, until he crafted the first in the series of over 80 portraits opening at the Royal Academy tomorrow. That first portrait was an image of Jean-Pierre Gonçalves de Lima, or JP, one of the artist's other assistants, inconsolable at the death of Dominic, sitting on a chair, head in his hands.

The portrait of Jean-Pierre precipitated a burst of creativity, a new series of work to rival his most famous in its depth of feeling. In the past, moments of both personal and social trauma have driven the artist onwards to create bodies of work that both uncover and act as a refuge from said trauma; whether that was AIDS crisis, or the end of relationships. Portraiture, and Los Angeles, too, have often figured largely in his works in those times of crisis.

David Hockney, Barry Humphries, 26th, 27th, 28th March, 2015

So it should come as no surprise that, after Dominic's death Hockney retreated to LA. Speaking the BBC, he's opened up about the time that led to the creation of the series. "I did'nt do much work for a while - I drew the garden a lot - it started with JP really." From that portrait of JP, Hockney began crafting and expanding his vision, the portraits, featured friends, family, associates, members of the LA art world, are hypnotic in their uniformity.

Sculpted to life in the same palette, a mix of classic Hockney blues and turquoises, with each sitter upon the same chair, the subtle differences in moods come from the sitters (ranging from Baron Rothschild to John Baldessari to Barry Humphries). When asked what the series he meant, he said, "We're all individuals. We're different on the outside, we're different on the inside."

The exhibition precedes a mammoth, and highly anticipated retrospective of his work set to open at the Tate next year, the gallery's, and Hockney's largest exhibition ever. Between the two exhibitions, it cements the artist's undeniable place as by far our most accomplished living painter.

David Hockney, 82 Portraits and 1 Still Life runs from 2 July — 2 October at the Royal Academy.

David Hockney, John Baldessari, 13th, 16th December, 2013.


Text Felix Petty

Los Angeles
John Baldessari
Barry Humphries
David Hockney
royal academy
82 portraits
dominic elliot